Pitching for Startups: The Background
Arui Levi was the first board member I had who understood the process of fund raising. “A great idea and a great story are not enough, you need more than that for someone like me to take out my check book and sign away a part of my net worth to your dreams”. Despite the MBA from Columbia, I struggled to create the perfect plan and the perfect pitch for him for over six months and then basically gave up. Southern California in early 2000 was overflowing with dreamers with a plan and my inability to decipher what my investor and board member wanted from me made me yet another casualty.
5 years later, I ran into Ken Morse and Bill Aulet at the MIT Enterprise Forum. Ken ran the Global selling workshop in Karachi where I finally connected the dots and understood what Arui was trying to teach me all those years ago. As is Ken’s style he didn’t tell us how inadequate our presentation and pitches were, he showed us. It was an extremely painful and humbling experience but it clearly marked the path we had to follow if we ever wanted to break out of our markets and go international.
Since that fateful day in 2006 when we first became victims of Ken’s infamous elevator pitch plank run (as in pirate ship, Blackbeard, et. all) I have spent time on both sides of the table. I have tried to internalize as much of what Ken taught me as possible by doing what he asked us to do, by pitching, by teaching others to pitch and by helping some of the really great companies from my market get the word out. I did that as a presenter, as a mentor, an investor, a banker and a judge.
We picked up the 2005 [email protected] nomination for the Asia Pacific ICT Awards but stumbled badly in the finals in Thailand. Then made it to the final five for the very first MIT Business Acceleration Plan (MIT EF BAP, Karachi, 2007) competition in Pakistan but were blown away by the brilliance of Zafar and Sofizars’ plan. Like cricketers in off season, we took the easy way out by retiring hurt and early and joined the competition by becoming judges and mentors for the [email protected] ICT Awards, the MIT EF Business Acceleration Plan Competition as well as the Asia Pacific ICT Awards (APICTA ICT). Later that same year we closed our first round of funding from an Angel investor. A few years later the same Angel asked me to write a handful of strategic investment proposals for a portfolio of 100 million dollar deals and allowed me to put on the hat of a banker. Yet another client did an introduction to the Dean of a very well respected Indian Business School in UAE and Singapore and I started teaching Entrepreneurship at the SP Jain campus in Dubai.
In what would amount to half a decade I have now heard enough business-plan pitches to last me a life time. While I am not a direct investor I have walked through over 2000 executive summaries, presentations and pitches from companies and partners all the way from North America to Europe, from the Far East and Asia Pacific to the Middle East. And while I have been amazed by the brilliance and foresight the winners and runners up in this competitions, the overall quality of the presentations I have seen suggests that there is still a big gap in entrepreneurial education when it comes to presenting or pitching an idea.
There are common mistakes that entrepreneurs make irrespective of the region they come from. And while North American presenters (and business plan pitches) have taken this art to a completely different level, there is still a lot of hard work for entrepreneurs from our part of the world.
For the last 12 months I had been thinking about putting together an online edition of a course that I could run for my students at SP Jain as well as the many mentees I end up working with for the [email protected] Social Innovation Fund, [email protected] Launch Pad and the Asia Pacific ICT Awards. What initially started as a collection of posts had to become an online video course since side by side with their presentation challenges, most entrepreneurs I know also have difficulty in following written instructions (including yours truly). An online video course would solve a lot of problems and save a great deal of prep-time. It would also fix the problem of reach since we have never been able to reach all the contestants and participants in time. Sometimes a really good company would stumble in the final round only because we got to them too late. While Jehan and I did a first shot on a series in Q&A format, without a functional whiteboard (or blackboard) my thunder was stolen.
The pitching course for startups is a special joint effort between a mile long list of contributors. Top of the list is the [email protected] team of [email protected] ICT Awards and APICTA judges and nominees who over the years have given me a chance to express and test what I think makes a real difference when pitching to a panel. Then come the students at the SP Jain EMBA and GMBA programs in Dubai who take what I share with them to build world class pitches in under a week (actually 18 hours of instruction). Without them playing along with the various thought experiments we run as part of our training session and the brilliance with which some of them apply the starting up and pitching framework, none of this would be possible. There is also the entrepreneurial eco system here in my country that despite the press coverage and popular opinion creates a great sounding board for what works or doesn’t work. Finally there is Ken Morse who held our hands and showed us point blank the good, the bad and the ugly of pitching.
Pitching for Startups: The course plan
The course is based on 6 video sessions, a number of posts and a collection of sample pitches. While the core video sessions are available only to paid subscribers a number of portions and components are available for free on this site.
Lesson One: Pitching for Entrepreneurs – the Pitching framework: Making it real
How do you get investors and business plan competition judges to take you seriously and make your pitch real and credible? We walk through the course plan and then jump straight into the structure of a good pitch. Starting from the introduction to the close. We then move on to some of the core questions that investors ask? How do you go about answering them? Within your answers what is the depth expected? What are some of the things you can do to work with your audience to leave a strong and lasting impression?
Lesson Two: Pitching Business Plans – The voice of your customer
If you think of your pitch as a movie with a plot, your best bet is to build a plot that revolves around a hero (or central character) who is looking, searching or seeking something. It could be the love of his life (500 hundred days of summer), his destiny (Titan AE and/or Treasure Island) or the meaning of life (Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy) or simply escape (K-Pax with Kevin Spacey). Great movies get the audience involved from the beginning showcasing the pain and making them wish and pray for a happy ending for the central character.
Who is the Hero in your movie/pitch? No it is not you, nor the investor, nor the product. Your pitch is best delivered in third person and the pain you are documenting is the pain of the customer. And the story you really want to tell is how badly he or she wants this pain to get fixed, addressed, nuked and neutralized. Somewhere in there, maybe towards the end is space for production credits (your profile) and maybe a sexy placement for your product (showing the hero using it in exactly the right context and scene where the audience is aware of the sub text and would love the usage). But all of that comes later; this movie is primarily about your customer.
Sounds easy, right? What seems to be the problem then? The problem is that a large number of pitches start with a customer profile as empty of details as the stick figure you see below. Who is this guy, where is he from, what does he feel, how do I find him, what do I say to him, will he bleed when I cut him?
Technically speaking what you really want when it comes to your customers profile is to draw a Mona Lisa. Ideally a restored edition that is rich with colors and details. You are still missing data but at least there is a face in front of you that you can now work with. You can now add details about demographics and profiles (age, education, job role, experiences, social preferences, reading interests, family size, ethnicity, political views, and personal tastes) and any other piece that helps you understand what drives this individual.
Lesson Three: Pitching Business Plans: Business Models
Your roadmap to credibility is the list of questions you have to ask as well as answer so that your business model can get to the next stage. Starting up, we need a framework or a mind map to build a task list. The framework shared by Alex and Steve Blank
does just that by focusing on the core hypothesis that you need to test, the market product fit you need to confirm and the User/Payer pitch you need to document. The two of them have gone out and said and done everything that you need to get started.
Lesson Four: Pitching Business Plans: Competition and Competitive Advantage
How do you dissect your competition? Is Technology a competitive advantage or not? What is the best framework that you can use to explain your strategy for world domination? What are the three primary competitive advantages and how can you test for sustainability?
Lesson Five and Six: Pitching Business Plans: Integrating the lessons
In our last and final two part session we bring together the entire list of lessons and try and create an integrated theme. How can we put what we have just learnt to work by learning from common mistakes teams make when pitching their product and service ideas.
Pitching for Startups: Required reading (free online resources)
Startup Training Materials: Related Posts for the Startup Crash Course
Startup Guide: How to win a business-plan competition
Startup Training Materials: The Entrepreneurial Crash Course
If you want to skip the class, skip the book, skip the history lessons, skip the school and the hard work here is the short and sweet version for you. Direct from Reboot – the Book
Startup Crash Course: Even more related material: Light reading from early startup years
On Starting up
On Raising Capital